Sen. Lindsey Graham's office has been flooded with calls and e-mails since Congress began considering a financial rescue plan about a week ago.
The S.C. Republican said the number of constituents who've contacted him was “somewhere between impeachment and immigration,” referring to two of the most controversial issues of the past 10 years, Bill Clinton's 1998-99 impeachment and trial and the ongoing effort to revamp immigration laws.
The number of calls has been higher than usual in Rep. Patrick McHenry's office, too.
“Opinions are mixed,” said the Cherryville Republican's spokesman Brock McCleary. “Most people want to know how the taxpayer will be protected. With no proposal yet, it's hard to say.”
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Lawmakers from both parties worked late into the night Saturday trying to close an agreement on a multibillion-dollar government bailout of distressed financial companies.
The House was scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. today and members there were hoping they could vote on a bill by this evening and go home to campaign for re-election. The Senate isn't scheduled to go back into session until Monday.
But House Republicans, whose objections derailed a deal reached last week, warned they did not want any rush to judgment.
“There are still a lot of issues on the table,” said House GOP leader John Boehner, notably the $700 billion size of the proposed bailout package.
In a sign of possible progress, the House Rules Committee began drafting guidelines for a debate and vote that could take place as early as today, which would send the bill to the Senate for final passage Monday.
Lawmakers from both parties, though, made it clear that they will only sign off on a plan they can explain to constituents as taxpayer-friendly and not a big giveaway to Wall Street.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., has gotten “thousands of calls” and most are opposed to a bailout, said Katie Hallaway, her spokeswoman.
Rep. Howard Coble got a call from a constituent in Thomasville on Saturday that he said was notable.
“She wanted me to vote in favor of a plan,” said Coble, a Republican from Greensboro.
With about 90 percent of the 500 or more other calls and e-mails he's gotten in the past week on the bailout plan, the instructions have been just the opposite.
“Good gosh, all kinds of calls, and they're running convincingly and overwhelmingly in opposition to the first plan,” Coble said. “It was a blank check with very little oversight.”
The same was true in the office of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Burr said Friday he had started getting calls from N.C. businesspeople who were getting their loans called and credit lines pulled with little notice, so he believed the public was beginning to understand that action was necessary to prevent a widespread collapse of the financial system.
Still being negotiated Saturday was how the $700 billion would be spent. Congressional negotiators last week chopped the sum into three pieces – $250 billion ready immediately, another $100 billion when the Treasury secretary certifies the need, and a final $350 billion later unless Congress disapproves.
But constituents see that $700 billion number and recoil, Graham said.
“That's got to change,” he said.
One compromise circulating Saturday would make a slight but significant change – Congress would have to approve the second $350 billion before it could be spent.
Possibly the thorniest issue involves how to handle a House Republican plan to have the government insure troubled securities rather than buy them. House GOP leaders were still not providing many details but wanted it included in the package.
Coble said he hasn't tried to talk his constituents into the need for a bailout.
“I let them do most of the talking,” he said. “At this juncture, I'm leaning with them. I've never embraced the sense of the urgency we were told earlier in the week, that my gosh it's got to be done tomorrow. But I do think something tangible needs to be done.”